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It is late-February and there is fan angst happening all over college basketball.
Some teams are on the bubble, others are off the bubble, still more are a good win or two away from being bubblicious. Teams are bad, others are middling, still more are careening towards one or the other. Somewhere within bad and middling, fans want the coach fired and they want him fired yesterday.
Welcome to Salt Lake City, home of the University of Utah. The Utes have had the very definition of an up-and-down season. Good at home, but bad on the road, with the end result being an above-.500 record, but without a resume resembling an NCAA Tournament team.
Unless the Utes win the Pac-12 Tournament next month in Las Vegas, there will be no NCAA Tournament for the fourth season in a row. The Utes went to the NIT in 2017 and 2018. There was no postseason at all in 2019 and while the NIT remains a possibility this season, there is still considerable resume work to get done.
It may not be a representative sample, but based on my Twitter mentions, there is a faction of Ute fans that want to move on from Larry Krystkowiak. Too many transfers, too much losing, not enough NCAA Tournaments, and the 2015 Sweet 16 was a long time ago are among the items of note brought to me.
I am here to tell you, on Feb. 20, with Utah and its radically-young roster at 14-11 overall and 5-8 in the Pac-12, that I think it would be a bad idea to do so. Even if I thought firing Krystkowiak was a good idea, it would be hard to pull off.
After the Utes went to the Sweet 16 in 2015, then-Athletic Director Chris Hill revamped Krystkowiak’s contract, extending it through 2023 and giving him a justifiable raise given the season he just had and the trajectory the program was on. I spent a lot of Wednesday going through all the numbers in Krystkowiak’s contract. I will spare you that boredom, because there is only one number that really matters in a coaching contract, the buyout.
Krystkowiak’s buyout is prohibitive. The latest version of USA Today’s exhaustive NCAA coaching salary database had the buyout at $12.75 million, but that was through April 1, 2019. Let’s say, hypothetically, Utah wants to move on from Krystkowiak after this season, with three seasons left on the contract. Krystkowiak would have to be paid out for those final three years, plus a prorated amount for the rest of this contract year, which ends on June 30. The buyout figure would be less than $12.75 million, but it would still sit somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million.
Either the school would have to foot that bill, Athletic Director Mark Harlan would have to rally enough booster and donor support to foot that bill, or both. To this point, there has been no indication there is anything on the horizon, nor should there be in my opinion.
My advice to Utah fans is to settle in. This current group of Utes has shown a lot of potential. If Krystkowiak can retain his core, which is not a given based on nine scholarship players transferring out the last two years, he will add the current players to the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the Pac-12.
The current trajectory is not as high as it was when Krystkowiak signed this contract, but the current trajectory is definitely upwards, no matter what the people in my Twitter mentions think about it.
BREAKING: Runnin’ Utes are better at home
I have hammered this point into the ground for most of the last month, but will continue to do so until something changes.
Utah has been very good at home, sitting at 10-1 at the Huntsman Center, but 0-7 on the road in the Pac-12. The average margin of defeat in those seven road games is 18.7 points, which is suboptimal.
The Utes are home this weekend, hosting UCLA on Thursday night and USC on Sunday afternoon. As noted above, the NIT remains a possibility for this team, but there is work still to be done and I’m going to make it as simple as possible.
For starters, don’t lose Thursday night to the Bruins, who have been surging lately. UCLA’s NET as of Wednesday is 99 and the game is at the Huntsman Center, so that makes it a Quadrant 3 opportunity for Utah. A Quadrant 3 win won’t do much for the resume, but a Quadrant 3 loss will be an anchor as the Utes already have two of them.
Don’t lose to UCLA, that’s first. Preferably, sweep the weekend. USC on Sunday is a Quadrant 2 opportunity. Q1 and Q2 wins are considered “quality wins” and the Utes can use as many of those as possible, whether it’s home, away, neutral, in the United States or on the moon. Utah has a combined seven Quadrant 1 and 2 wins for the season.
More Utes thoughts
• I wrote about Both Gach on Wednesday morning after I spoke with the sophomore guard Tuesday for the first time in more than a month. Gach’s play has been on my mind a lot since his return last week at Oregon State and I do wonder, can he get back to his top form this season? He was already in a slump, then missed four games with a right knee injury, and is now trying to get right with six regular-season games to go. That is not a formula conducive to finding your top game, but we’ll see.
• I have no idea if there is a correlation, but LSU won the College Football Playoff five weeks ago, so Utah announcing a home-and-home with the Tigers on Monday felt like a smart play. LSU is the biggest name in the sport right now, so why not hop in there and take advantage if you’re the Utes, even if that series is more than a decade away? That series, and the Florida series announced in September, speak to Mark Harlan’s desire to beef up football scheduling.
• While Harlan is scheduling Florida and LSU, this is a reminder that Utah will play at Wyoming next season and at San Diego State in 2021 as part of home-and-home agreements. Neither of those road games benefit Utah. The Utes want to play Group of Five schools at home? By all means, go for it, but I have never been a proponent of Power Fives going on the road to Group of Fives, mostly because no one is making them, but Chris Hill signed off on it and of course, nobody asked me. Oh, by the way, Wyoming is 14-5 at War Memorial Stadium since the start of 2017, including 6-0 last season. Giddy up.
• Utah and UCLA gymnastics, co-No. 3 nationally this week, square off Sunday in Westwood, and will be televised nationally on ESPN2. Our Lya Wodraska has all the details.
• Said this last week, but Bracketology is fluid, so we’ll go again. The Pac-12 legitimately deserves three bids, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona. It could end up with five, maybe even six because, well, you ultimately have to fill the field of 68 somehow. USC and Arizona State are First Four-type teams at the moment, but the Sun Devils are charging, looking more and more capable with each game.
• Staying with the Sun Devils, Remy Martin deserves real Pac-12 Player of the Year consideration, even if Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is the prohibitive favorite and a National Player of the Year candidate. Oregon and Arizona State play Thursday night in Tempe.
• Horror stories of Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum were unfounded last week. Yes, the place is a relic, but no complaints from my end, with the self-serving exception of the media seating being bleachers, not chair backs. Gill had more character to it than at least Arizona State’s Desert Financial Arena.
• Matthew Knight Arena is the nicest facility in the Pac-12 as it looks like a scaled-down NBA arena. That said, like an NBA arena, it is cold, sterile and has very little character to it.
• While we’re here, updated Pac-12 gyms I’ve been in.
Arizona: Few frills, but has history and brought the noise for a Thursday game against Utah.
Oregon: Gorgeous facility, but does not feel at all like a college venue.
UCLA: It’s Pauley Pavilion, enough said. Probably No. 1 if there were any sort of crowd on Super Bowl Sunday.
Utah: My first assignment at the Salt Lake Tribune was Utah-BYU on Dec. 4. That left an impression.
Colorado: Another no-frills deal in a big cement box, but the place got loud with about 9,000 there for a 4 p.m. Sunday tip.
Oregon State: Corvallis is a pain to get to. Other than that, no complaints about my time there, including Gill Coliseum.
USC: Nice place, but felt more like a concert hall than a basketball arena.
Arizona State: Will turn 46-years old on April 29, and looks its age.
• I hit Portland on one of the off days in Oregon. Underrated city tucked away from pretty much everything in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think I could live there, but I’ll always go out of my way for a day trip if I’m in the area.